Illuminating Experiences on a Dark Night [24]

By Arunas Pilka

“Who’s stupid idea was this night paddle?”

The answer to this question posed by Jackie as we were about to set off was that yes, I had thought of it all by myself. I was to be reminded of my answer innumerable times as the calamities of the weekend unfolded.

The weekend started badly on Friday afternoon with me being passed on my way back from work on my pushbike by a girl. A few kilometres further on I had an head on collision with another rider, fortunately neither I nor my bike was damaged but the other riders front wheel had turned itself into a taco, which was only fair as the collision was his fault in the first place. On Saturday afternoon while doing the car shuffle the NSW constabulary showed an interest in my speeding vehicle, their attention leaving me $99 poorer. With all these portents of disaster, any sane, reasonable & intelligent person would have called the whole thing off, and failing that, if he had any real friends they would have talked him out of it. But I’m not that lucky & the show was to go on.

Five of us, Gary Edmond, Evan Shillabeer, Dirk Stuber, Jackie Windh and myself had met at Ulladulla Harbour and the forecast was for North Easterlies with two Southerly changes to come through. The first of these had passed through at about 1pm and had been so weak that it only briefly managed to moderate the North Easterly. The second front we guessed would also be weak so we decided to paddle from North to South and did the car shuffle accordingly. Just before setting off, Evan decided to get an updated weather forecast and was informed that the second front had hit Green Cape at about 4pm with wind strengths in excess of 30 knots and was expected to reach Sydney by 11pm. We decided that, rather than redo the car shuffle, we would set of regardless and if the wind got too strong turn around and head back to Ulladulla.

I had asked everyone to organise their own lighting so that we might have a range of ideas evaluated for their effectiveness. Gary had opted for a large red Cyalume (aprox 200mm), Evan had the same setup only in green, Jackie had a 100mm green Cyalume sticking up from an elastic headband making her look like some sort of high tech Hiawattha, I had the same Cyalume stitched into the back of a baseball cap and Dirk had a pathetic little 50mm blue Cyalume that Garry had done a messy job of stitching onto the top of Dirk’s hat (Gary’s philosophy on workmanship is to do the worst job possible so that no one will ever ask you to do it again). Dirk did later at Brush Island put on a large red Cyalume.

And so we set off at about 7.30 pm into a lifting South Easterly of about 15 knots. The bouncy conditions had us all feeling uncomfortable and realising just how much we all rely on visual cues for paddling. After a while though our bodies grew accustomed to the movement of the kayaks and we started to feel more comfortable but the progress was slow into the Southerly and we decided to paddle on to Crampton Island (12km) and make a decision there whether to continue on or not.

At Crampton Island we stopped for something to eat and a cup of coffee and because the wind seemed to be dropping rather than increasing as expected we decided to go on. Rather than go around the island we opted for paddling through the gap between it and the headland. This meant we had to break out through the surf. As I was paddling out through the breakers I saw Gary’s red Cyalume going in the wrong direction back towards the beach, I thought “if Gary can gad about surfing why shouldn’t I” so I turned around and surfed one back into the beach, surfing at night is fun, try it some time. As it turned out Gary hadn’t surfed back in on purpose, he’d simply been cleaned up by a large wave and carried back in. The others took a dim view of our antics, after all we still had over 40km to go, so on we pressed.

The next bit of excitement came at Brush Island. After the surf at Crampton, Jackie was a bit dubious about shooting the gap between the island and the headland again but Gary assured her that it was hundreds of meters wide and at least 50 feet deep. Wrong again Gary. As we paddled into the gap a large set came in, steepened and started to break. Some frantic paddling saw everyone come through unscathed albeit fairly wet. Gary and I mused that this also was a good spot for some night surfing but the need to press on once again denied us our simple pleasures.

Our next stop for refreshments was at Depot Beach. From Depot Beach we had only 15km of the 55km journey to go. We had had an enjoyable paddle, the weather had improved, we had had a little excitement, we had enjoyed each others company and in a few hours we would be rewarded with a warm dry bed, things were going well but things were about to change.

Grasshopper Island just South of Depot Beach has a narrow and fairly shallow gap between it and the headland. Swells were refracting around the island entering the gap and breaking where the water shallowed. This resulted in broken waves going in opposite directions and colliding in the middle. For Gary, Dirk & myself this proved irresistible and so we paddled headlong into the gap, surfing one wave into an oncoming wave proved to be great fun, Gary and I made it through, Dirk got capsized but rolled up and the three of us assembled on the other side to wait for the other two.

In the meantime Evan and Jackie had decided that they didn’t like the look of what we had just gone through and that they would rather go around Grasshopper Island. That was the last we were to see of them until we got to Bateman’s Bay. Gary, Dirk and I waited for about 15 minutes before deciding that they must have either gone around or gotten into trouble going through. We spent a further 15 minutes or so scouting the general area for them then Gary & I paddled around the island in the opposite direction that they would have gone. When we got back to where we had left Dirk he was gone. We assumed that he must have seen the others and paddled after them. Gary and I then separated by about 200m and paddled off in the direction of Bateman’s Bay hoping to see them, after about 10-15 minutes we could not see them and decided to go back to Grasshopper Island. Back at Grasshopper Island we saw a torch light on the headland and later heard Dirk’s voice. Thinking that he must have found the others we paddled back to Depot Beach and found Dirk who had seen the flashing beacon on the headland and thought that it was Gary’s strobe. By this time I was feeling almost physically ill from worry over Jackie and Evan. We decided considering that it was close to dawn to wait until there was enough light and conduct a thorough search. On finding no wreckage we assumed that Jackie and Evan had paddled on and that we should do the same.

In the mean time Jackie and Evan had come around the island not been able to find us, spent about an half hour searching and decided to paddle on. The amazing thing was that during that half hour we had been searching for each other in an area of no more than 200m x 400m and could not find each other.

With sunrise the wind had picked up and was now blowing from the South East at about 15 knots, Dirk decided that he was too tired to keep up with Gary and me and that rather than slow us down he would pull out at South Durras.

Gary and I plugged on into a frustrating head wind, still worried about Jackie and Evan. Tired from exertion and lack of sleep this was no longer fun and we both were looking forward to it being over but worse was yet to come.

As we approached North Head of Bateman’s Bay the large SE swell was causing bommies to break off the headland. To save ourselves some distance we decided to try to sneak through a gap in the headland that we had both been through often before but in calmer weather. From where we had gone through the gap we could not see out to sea where the swells were forming to break, there were broken waves coming through but none were more than half a meter high and so we ventured out into them. What we had not realised was that we were watching a lull in the waves and that they were typically much larger. A large set came through and Gary, who was just in front of me only just made it over the first one, I was expecting him to be driven back into me and so I stopped paddling and lost all my boat speed. As a result the wave picked me up and drove me straight into the rocks, I managed to roll up and start paddling out again but was clobbered by an even larger wave which pounded me against the rocks once again. I was winded and could sense that the boat had been damaged, I bombed an attempted roll and abandoned ship. The next wave mashed both me and the boat into the rocks again this time breaking my near new kevlar Arctic Raider in two. After being pummelled by a few more waves I finally dragged myself and what remained of my kayak up onto a small rocky beach at the end of a narrow gully. I was bruised and suffered cuts and abrasions but was extremely lucky that I had not hit my head and drowned.

Gary after watching this paddled around to a beach inside Bateman’s Bay and climbed over the rocks to where I was. We gathered all my gear and formulated a plan for retrieving both myself and my kayak.

While all of this was going on Jackie and Evan had arrived in Bateman’s Bay expecting us to be there already. After waiting a while they drove to Depot Beach and searched the area for our corpses and kayaks. On not finding them they drove back to Bateman’s Bay to find that we still had not arrived. Fearing the worst they decided that it was time to alert the authorities. Not knowing exactly who to call they contacted Telecom’s directory service and were given the number for Coast Watch (Coast Watch is a Customs Department service involved in detecting smugglers). Coast Watch took down the details but told them they were the wrong people to inform and gave them the number for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority who took down the details but told them they were the wrong people to inform and referred them to the NSW Water Police in Sydney who took down the details but told them they were the wrong people to inform and suggested calling someone locally. Evan then looked up the number for the local volunteer coastal patrol who promised to keep a lookout.

After all these phone calls Jackie and Evan returned to the caravan park at which we were to finish in time to see Garry, on his own, paddling hard towards them. God only knows what they thought in those minutes until he got to the beach. When he did get there he told them what had happened and they radioed the coastal patrol who picked me up from North Head.

When the Coastal Patrol got me back to the docks there was an irate young constable waiting who had been notified by the Water Police in Sydney. Angry that he had not been the first informed he interrogated me for a while before giving some stern advice on boating safety.

From there it was a matter of driving around to North Head Beach to recover the pieces of my kayak before setting off home after what had been although a fairly traumatic night one filled with illuminating experiences.

Some of the Lessons Learned:

  • Cyalumes although the only real alternative for long night paddles are only clearly visible for about 200m (this is the large ones when still fresh), also it is difficult to deploy them so that they are visible from all angles. To get all round coverage you probably need two, one front and another at the back, to this end red or orange ones are preferable as they do not disturb night vision as much.
  • It is really easy to get separated at night.
  • It is important to discuss a rendezvous should the group get split up. This needs to be discussed in detail and it should be checked that each member of the group has the same understanding as to where, when, under what circumstances, etc to go to the rendezvous point. This also applies to daylight paddling.
  • All members of a group should be agreed as to in what circumstances the authorities should be notified and each group member should know the correct authority to notify.
  • At the end of a long tiring paddle feats of bravado such as dangerous gauntlets should not be attempted.